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Arts, Sports & Culture

Major Theater Archive Moves To Pittsburgh, Home Of The First Nickelodeon

Loew's Collection
American Theatre Architecture Archive
The Loew's Penn Theater, now Heinz Hall, pictured in downtown Pittsburgh on Friday, April 15, 1927. Pittsburgh is home to many architecturally singificant theaters and the first commercial movie venue.

One of the nation’s largest collections of theater memorabilia recently moved to Pittsburgh, which, among our bridges, rivers and legendary sports teams, is known for having the first commercial movie theater.

The Theatre Historical Society of America, or THS, opened the curtain to their new facility along Penn Avenue last month, after outgrowing its previous home in Chicago. Founded in 1969, THS is a nonprofit educational organization that collects and archives artifacts from live and film theater productions.

Richard Fosbrink, Executive Director at THS, said that out of 38 cities, Pittsburgh came out on top, largely because of the Steel City’s history of theater innovation.

Credit David Brossard / flickr
The Harris Theater along Liberty Ave. in Pittsburgh was originally opened as the Art Cinema in 1931. For years it featured controversial, racy films. It was later named after John P. Harris, co-founder of the original Nickelodeon theater.

“Pittsburgh is widely regarded among scholars as the birthplace of the commercial movie theater,” Fosbrink said.

In the early 1900s, entrepreneur Harry Davis, who Fosbrink described as “Pittsburgh’s version of PT Barnum,” organized Dime Museums. The institutions were known for “lowbrow” entertainment, featuring attractions like “baby with the giant head” and “mermaid woman.”

By 1905, film screenings were becoming popular in the United States. Fosbrink said Davis and his business partner, John Harris, were looking to get into the theater industry.

“(Davis and Harris) had a large collection of these short films and a projector,” Fosbink said. “Davis had an empty storefront on Smithfield Street, so they took the projector over there.”

Fosbrink said the two started showing movies all day in a small room, charging customers a nickel.

“It was called the Nickelodeon,” Fosbrink said. “Within a few years, those nickelodeons sprung up all over the country.”

THS will lease space from the Heinz History Center, which Fosbrink said accommodates the size and preservation requirements for its archives. It'll also work with the University of Pittsburgh’s Curtis Theatre Collection. Currently THS is open to the public by appointment.

Fosbrink said now that the move is complete, THS can focus on looking to the future. He said he hopes to eventually open a national museum, capitalizing on the city’s movie history.